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Normally, you wouldn’t expect to encounter two life-sized military fighter planes mounted on pedestals zooming at you on a quiet street in a small French Normandy town. But normally, you also wouldn’t expect to encounter them virtually in the shadow of an enormous medieval fortress built by England’s King Richard the Lion-Hearted in the 12th century. However, that is just what you will happen to you in the small town of Les Andelys, roughly 65 miles northwest of Paris on the banks of the Seine River as it flows toward the sea. reasons are simple.
Built by King Richard in just two years, from 1196-1198, near the end of Britain’s lengthy reign over Normandy, the fortress, which bears the name of Chateau Gaillard, overlooks the town and the Seine and dominates the countryside for miles around. It still stands majestically, although considerably the worse for wear, on its lonely hilltop 100 meters above the river as a symbol of England’s reign. The chateau so controlled passage on the Seine river and any possible movement of troops or material by water from France toward Normandy that it was the cornerstone of Richard’s strategy for defending the province from French invasion.
Troops of French King Philippe-Auguste, who was determined to wrest Normandy from English control, kept the chateau under siege from autumn 1203 to spring 1204 and finally took it after a small group managed to enter through an unguarded passageway, lower the draw bridge and allow their main forces to surge inside. Although the province continued to change hands periodically for more than a hundred years more, Gaillard’s fall opened the door to French capture of the city of Rouen shortly thereafter and effectively ended England’s rule over Normandy.
As for the fighter planes, in town near the base of the chateau, they mark the site of the little-known but fascinating Normandie Niémen Museum devoted to the small group of French pilots and mechanics who fought with the Soviet Union’s air force against Hitler’s armies during World War II. Like the Eagle Squadron of American airmen who flew with the Royal Air Force in Britain in World War II or those in the Lafayette Escadrille who flew with the French before the United States officially entered World War I, those pilots had refused to accept their country’s surrender and occupation by Germany in 1940 and continued their battle alongside Soviet forces on the Russian front.
Created by General Charles de Gaulle in 1942 as part of his Free French air force, the escadrille, initially was titled the 3d fighter group Normandie even though its pilots came from all over occupied France and only four of them were from Normandy. Its assignment to the Soviet air force was designed to demonstrate the De Gaulle’s resistance movement link to all Hitler’s foes. However, after its pilots distinguished themselves valorously in the 1944 battle for control of the Niéman river area north of Kaliningrad, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the unit’s name to be changed that year to Normandie-Niéman.
Its wartime record was admirable. From early 1943 when it first entered battle and the end of the war in 1945 the escadrille flew 5,240 missions, racking up 273 confirmed and 36 probable victories. Of the 96 pilots involved, 42 lost their lives. One of the most prominent of the French pilots in that group was Marcel Lefèvre, a native of Les Andelys. He was one of those who perished on the Russian front when his plane caught fire and crashed and, after the war, with tremendous local support, his brother Robert created in the town the museum devoted to the wartime heroics of Marcel and the other French airmen with him.
The two podium-mounted fighter planes outside the entrance to the museum, which is filled with photos, documents, citations and various memorabilia celebrating the 65th anniversary of the escadrille’s founding, its exploits and the 15th year of the memorials existence in Les Andelys’s, are a striking evocation of the unit’s Franco-Soviet exploit.
One is a replica of the Soviet-built, propeller-driven Yak 9 fighter used by the French pilots on their missions with the Soviet air force. Fittingly it bears, in addition to the Soviet red star insignia on its rudder and fuselage, the same markings—11 small red and white crosses signifying his aerial victories and France’s blue, white and red national colors on its propeller hub—that were on Marcel Lefèvre’s plane, “Le Père Magloire,”
The other fighter, a more modern Mirage F-1 jet, sports the colors of the French air force unit that retains the Normandie-Niémen title and flies to this day from a base near Colmar in Alsace. In a similar gesture of tradition a Russian air force regiment based in the eastern extremity of Russia also continues to bear the Normandie-Niéman title.
The Normandie-Niémen museum is in near-central Les Andelys on rue Raymond Phélip.
It is open every day except Tuesday from 10 to 12 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m. until September 15. and from 2:p.m. to 6 p.m. from then until May 31.
Telephone: 33 (0)2 32 54 49 76
The Chateau Gaillard is easily accessible by a steep uphill car drive from the town and provides an unmatchable view of the meandering Seine River andits bordering chalk cliffs.
Although only the towers and ramparts of chateau remain, they are impressive and accessible year round for exterior viewing and for guided group tours of the interior from mid-March to mid-November. Reservations are highly advisable via Email: [email protected] or by telephone 33-(0)2 32 54 04 16.